Review: Gideon the Ninth, by Tamsyn Muir
eagle at eyrie.org
Tue May 12 22:23:50 PDT 2020
Gideon the Ninth
by Tamsyn Muir
Series: The Locked Tomb #1
Copyright: September 2019
Despite being raised there, Gideon Nav is an outsider in the Ninth
House. Her mother, already dead, fell from the sky with a one-day-old
Gideon in tow, leaving her an indentured servant. She's a grumpy,
caustic teenager in a world of moldering corpses, animated skeletons,
and mostly-dead adults whose parts are falling off. Her world is sword
fighting, dirty magazines, a feud with the house heir Harrowhark, and a
determination to escape the terms of her indenture.
Gideon does get off the planet, but not the way that she expects. She
doesn't get accepted into the military. She ends up in the middle of a
bizarre test, or possibly an ascension rite, mingling with and
competing with the nobility of the empire alongside her worst enemy.
I struggled to enjoy the beginning of Gideon the Ninth. Gideon tries to
carry the story on pure snark, but it is very, very goth. If you like
desiccated crypts, mostly-dead goons, betrayal, frustration,
necromancers, black robes, disturbing family relationships, gloom, and
bitter despair, the first six chapters certainly deliver, but I was
sick of it by the time Gideon gets out. Thankfully, the opening is
largely unlike the rest of the book. What starts as an over-the-top
teenage goth rebellion turns into a cross between a manor house murder
mystery and a competitive escape room. This book is a bit of a mess,
but it's a glorious mess.
It's also the sort of glorious mess that I don't think would have been
written or published twenty years ago, and I have a pet theory that
attributes this to the invigorating influence of fanfic and writers who
grew up reading and writing it.
I read a lot of classic science fiction and epic fantasy as a teenager.
Those books have many merits, obviously, but emotional range is not one
of them. There are a few exceptions, but on average the genre either
focused on puzzles and problem solving (how do we fix the starship, how
do we use the magic system to take down the dark god) or on the typical
"heroic" (and male-coded) emotions of loyalty, bravery, responsibility,
authority, and defiance of evil. Characters didn't have messy breakups,
frenemies, anxiety, socially-awkward love affairs, impostor syndrome,
self-hatred, or depression. And authors weren't allowed to fall in love
with the messiness of their characters, at least on the page.
I'm not enough of a scholar to make the argument well, but I suspect
there's a case to be made that fanfic exists partially to fill this
gap. So much of fanfic starts from taking the characters on the
canonical page or screen and letting them feel more, live more, love
more, screw up more, and otherwise experience a far wider range of
human drama, particularly compared to what made it into television,
which was even more censored than what made it into print. Some of
those readers and writers are now writing for publication, and others
have gone into publishing. The result, in my theory, is that the range
of stories that are acceptable in the genre has broadened, and the
emotional texture of those stories has deepened.
Whether or not this theory is correct, there are now more novels like
this in the world, novels full of grudges, deflective banter,
squabbling, messy emotional processing, and moments of glorious
emotional catharsis. This makes me very happy. To describe the
emotional payoff of this book in any more detail would be a huge
spoiler; suffice it to say that I unabashedly love fragile competence
and unexpected emotional support, and adore this book for containing
Gideon's voice, irreverent banter, stubborn defiance, and impulsive
good-heartedness are the center of this book. At the start, it's not
clear whether there will be another likable character in the book.
There will be, several of them, but it takes a while for Gideon to find
them or for them to become likable. You'll need to like Gideon well
enough to stick with her for that journey.
I read books primarily for the characters, not for the setting, and
Gideon the Ninth struck some specific notes that I will happily read
endlessly. If that doesn't match your preferences, I would not be too
surprised to hear you bounced off the book. There's a lot here that
won't be to everyone's taste. The setting felt very close to Warhammer
40K: an undead emperor that everyone worships, endless war, necromancy,
and gothic grimdark. The stage for most of the book is at least more
light-filled, complex, and interesting than the Ninth House section at
the start, but everything is crumbling, drowning, broken, or decaying.
There's quite a lot of body horror, grotesque monsters, and bloody
fights. And the ending is not the best part of the book; roughly the
last 15% of the novel is composed of two running fight scenes against a
few practically unkillable and frankly not very interesting villains. I
got exhausted by the fighting long before it was over, and the
conclusion is essentially a series cliffhanger.
There are also a few too many characters. The collection of characters
and the interplay between the houses is one of the strengths of this
book, but Muir sets up her story in a way that requires eighteen
significant characters and makes the reader want to keep track of all
of them. It took me about halfway through the book before I felt like I
had my bearings and wasn't confusing one character for another or
forgetting a whole group of characters. That said, most of the
characters are great, and the story gains a lot from the interplay of
their different approaches and mindsets. Palamedes Sextus's logical
geekery, in particular, is a great counterpoint to the approaches of
most of the other characters.
The other interesting thing Muir does in this novel that I've not seen
before, and that feels very modern, is to set the book in essentially
an escape room. Locking a bunch of characters in a sprawling mansion
until people start dying is an old fictional trope, but this one has
puzzles, rewards, and a progressive physical structure that provides a
lot of opportunities to motivate the characters and give them space to
take wildly different problem-solving approaches. I liked this a lot,
and I'm looking forward to seeing it in future books.
This is not the best book I've read, but I thoroughly enjoyed it,
despite some problems with the ending. I've already pre-ordered the
Followed by Harrowhark the Ninth.
Rating: 8 out of 10
Russ Allbery (eagle at eyrie.org) <https://www.eyrie.org/~eagle/>
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